Saturday 28 February 2009

Warhammer Goblins

One thing that the Warhammer designers did really well was to come up with a unique spin on goblins. The iconic fantasy creatures in 'standard' D&D are really rather staid and boring, probably from overuse - and goblins are no exception. In most campaigns they're just low-level mook creatures for the PCs to kill, with barely a second thought. "Oh, look, it's a goblin. Hand over the 15 XP..."

Warhammer goblins have something about them, though. They have style, for one thing. From the night goblins, with their black capes, pointed hats and moon motifs, to the Tupi-Indian pastiche forest goblins, there is a unified look to the Warhammer breeds. I especially like the night goblins: cartoonish it might be, but their demented rumpelstiltskin shtick is far more effective than D&D's rather drab little mini-orcs.

More importantly, though, Warhammer goblins have personality. The night goblins are maniacal drug-addled loons who dose themselves up on fungus before a fight and go running towards the enemy lines swinging ball-and-chains as big as themselves; they herd giant fungus-creatures called Squigs which they sometimes ride to battle; their favourite weapons are weighted nets and tridents which they use to capture their foes. The forest goblins inject themselves with hallucinagenic poisons and ride around on giant tarantulas. Others strap themselves into giant ballistas and hurl themselves at their enemies, kamikaze-like: they are happy to die if only they can have an entertaining death. Warhammer goblins are crazed, absurd, and very, very weird.

My favourite goblin war-method is undoubtedly the Squig Hopper. Imagine a kid on a space hopper. Now imagine that instead of a kid it's a vile, green-skinned, yellow-eyed murderous goblin. Then imagine that instead of a space hopper, it's an orange ball of flesh with a mouth which takes up half its body, giant horns, and two massive feet. Then imagine it bounding across the battlefield towards you with huge, ten-yard leaps while the goblin clings on, waving a cleaver over his head. That's a Squig Hopper. In Warhammer Fantasy Battle the things move entirely randomly, leaving destruction wherever they land (often in the ranks of their own side), and dying in droves. But the concept is just so phantasmagorically cool.

I wish people would give goblins in their D&D campaigns unique flavours like that. But so often they end up being, well, bland.

Thursday 26 February 2009

On Warhammer, British vs. American Fantasy, and Pessimism

As a teenager (let's say until the age of about 16 or so) the biggest drain on my time and pocket money was not girls, cigarettes or alchohol, but Citadel Miniatures (at the time a separate company from Games Workshop but which made all of its figures). I loved Warhammer. My friends and I played a lot of Warhammer 40,000 and Blood Bowl too, and we even created our own gang-warfare battle game a few years before Necromunda came out. But Warhammer was always what we came back to and what we did basically every weekday night after school and often all day at weekends. I like it just as much, if not more so, than D&D, and it's probably only because I can't cart hundreds of lead figures across Eurasia every couple of months that this blog isn't a Warhammer- rather than an RPG-focused one.

There are lots of things to love about Warhammer - the gonzo weirdness, the random generators, the endearing amorality, the sheer gothicness of the whole thing. But I think what I like most about it is the pessimism. Pessimism seeps through all of Games Workshop's lines like a sickness; from Warhammer 40,000's tagline that "In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, There is Only War", to Necromunda's bleak vision of gangs and mutants squabbling over radioaction-scarred urban jungle, these games are not in any way nice.

Warhammer's own particular twist on that theme is the spread of Chaos, whose tendrils are gradually extending themselves over the world and who will never, can never, be defeated - no matter how hard it is fought against. Humanity will slowly be brought under the dominion of the Chaos Gods, and the best that can be hoped for is that the process will be prolonged. There is something compelling about the idea of The Empire, ramshackle and disease-ridden but having to be constantly vigilant against betrayal by its own people - almost like the USSR under Stalin - terrified of spies and fifth-columns, forever jumping at its own shadow, and doomed to inevitable failure.

I believe I am right in saying that Warhammer owes much about this incredibly bleak meta-narrative to the works of Tolkien. Many people mistakenly (in my opinion) believe that The Lord of the Rings has a happy ending, forgetting that, taken in context, it is really just an account of the last hurrah of a once mighty and beautiful civilisation that has been slowly collapsing over the course of thousands of years. Something of this atmosphere fed into Warhammer at its inception and has strongly influenced it ever since. But I also think that there is something in the British, and particularly in the English, view of the world, that influenced both Tolkien and Games Workshop (and also Moorcock and the Fighting Fantasy creators - the other points of the British fantasy square).

In comparison to people from other countries, British people are deeply pessimistic. I can say that, having grown up in the country but spent a lot of time in others. I notice it every time I go back home. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is one of their/our defining national characteristics. Of course there are many exceptions to this rule, but I don't think the sheer numb weight of cynicism and world-weariness present in British culture can really be ignored. (This can be a great quality, of course - it's what makes the British sense of humour so richly ironic, which is incidentally something else that can be noticed in Warhammer - but more on that in another entry.) And it sets the British in direct contrast to Americans, for whom a defining national characteristic is optimism.

In fact, I believe that in many ways Warhammer and D&D can be taken as representative of the cultures which created them. On the one hand you have a cynical, nasty, bleak and darkly humurous setting whose dominant idea is decay. And on the other you have a game basically founded on the principles of rugged individualism and self-betterment - in which a set of characters fight to success all on their own, without much in the way of a helping hand, or else die trying. In a strange sort of way, you don't get anything more representative of British values than Warhammer, nor anything more representative of American values than D&D.

What that shouldn't mean is that D&D campaigns can't take some of the pessimism of Warhammer and make it their own. It's perfectly possible to be a rugged individualist in a world slowly collapsing. I'm not talking about 'doing' Warhammer with D&D (why have that cotton when you can have the silk of WHFRP?) but introducing that key idea of an inevitable turn for the worse in the wheel of history... I like it and want to build a campaign around it.

This rather rambling entry doesn't have much else to it apart from that. I hope it makes at least some vague sort of sense.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Warhammer and Dreams

I've got a big project on at the moment, so time is tight for blogging and other internet activities (note: this applies to the Yesteryear crew too) but I hope to do a series of posts over the next few days all about the world of Warhammer and how it can be used to influence D&D.

In the meantime: I had a dream last night that a new game was being released in which task resolution was carried out not through dice rolling, but through trying to pull down the pants of the other players. It was the talk of the internet, and even featured on the BBC news website. I wish I could remember the name of it. My wife told me I woke her up by laughing at the concept in my sleep.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

The Nasnas of Syr Darya

[Apologies once again for the dreadful art.]

From the journal of Laxmi Ghuptra Dahl:

Before I arrived in Syr Darya I had of course heard of the strange appearance of its populace. After all, apart from the city's architectural beauty and the power of its magic, it is that for which the city is chiefly famed. But nevertheless on my arrival I was shocked by the throngs of deformed and ungainly half-men who hopped through its streets, and I could barely stand to enter the city from revulsion. Nothing in the tales of travellers had prepared me for the sight.

After several weeks in Syr Darya I had grown somewhat used to its wretched people, and I ventured out of my dwelling to find out why they had become this way. I went in search of one of the city's elders, an Ogre Magi by the name of Wahid Qasemi, who I had been told was favourably disposed to outsiders and something of an expert on his city's history.

The Ogre Magi are the only people living in Syr Darya who are whole (apart from some travellers and merchants). I asked him why it should be that those of his own race were unaffected by the affliction, while all of the human citizenry were stricken so.

"It is a long tale whose details I will spare you," he told me, "But it began some five centuries ago, when my people first came to this city. At that time we were wanderers from plague and war in the West, and we came to the mountains seeking fortune and employment as mercenary warriors. At that time the people of Syr Darya were handsome, fair-haired and tall, indeed a wondrous sight."

He paused and blew a great cloud of smoke from his hookah. "My ancestors found employ with the Rajah of Syr Darya, who used us in his many battles against rival states in the mountains - cities which are now long left to ruin. With our aid he laid all of his enemies low, and all of Sughd paid him homage. But even then his greed overtook him and he refused to offer us payment for our years of service.

"Now, my people is a learned one, and we had heard legends of a great demon living in these mountains, known as The Shikk. The Shikk can perform any task he is given, but he is both capricious and hungry, and he always demands a heavy toll for any boon he grants. My people were prepared to make any sacrifice, however, to exact revenge on the greedy Rajah. They summoned The Shikk and asked him for his aid in stealing Syr Darya away from the Rajah forever, and taking the city for their own.

"The Shikk granted their wish, and destroyed Syr Darya's armies while my ancestors stormed the palace. There they took the Rajah and his many wives and children and sliced them into pieces, spending three nights and three days in the process. Finally they were sated, and they looked out upon the beautiful city which they now intended to make their own.

"But The Shikk had taken a heavy toll indeed. The great demon believed that, since he had done at least half the work, he should also have half the prize. So he took the left side of every human being in the city for his own, leaving the people of Syr Darya forever cursed with but the right half of their bodies. My ancestors gained the city, but it has only ever been a pale imitation of what it once was."

Wahid Qasemi had been animated in the telling, particularly as he described the deaths of the old Rajah and his many wives and children. But now his voice became bitter and he said, "The people you see in the city today are the same as lived here five hundred years ago. Whether because of The Shikk's magic of some other reason we do not understand, the
nasnas are undying, and can never die. We Magi are the rulers of but half a city and will be forever more - until, perhaps, we one day find a way to take back from The Shikk what he took from us."


Armour Class: 5
Hit Dice: 4+1*
Move: 90'
Attacks: 1
Damage/Attack: By weapon +1 (usually halberd, sword, axe or spear)
No. Appearing: 1-20 (in mountains); 200-2000 (in city)
Save As: D5
Morale: 10
Treasure Type: S
Intelligence: 9
Alignment: Neutral
XP Value: 125
Type: Undead (rare)

Special Defenses:

Immunity to Normal Weapons: Nasnas are vulnerable only to silver or magical weapons.

Nasnas compose 90% of the citizenry of Syr Darya and females, children and non-combatants are present in the usual amounts. These statistics are for a typical member of the city guard.

Monday 23 February 2009

Theorising Playstyles: Ron Edwards Eat Your Heart Out

There are a lot of theories about roleplaying which are essentially nonsense. Jeff Rients has by far and away the best way of categorising games. Here's my nonsense way of categorising players. It's a little like a collection of Derridian dichotomies through which can be revealed profound instabilities, heirarchies and dualities within ones paticular gaming nomo; or, if you prefer, four questions which you have to answer in order to get a snappy or not so snappy acronym.

1. Are you a Creator or a Goer? That is, if you are a DM do you spend ridiculous amounts of time cateloging your game world right down to the different varities of cheese produced in the Barony of Du Pres, or do you just start off with a village and a dungeon and see what happens? If you are a player, do you think deeply and carefully about your equipment and skills to make sure they fit exactly with your character's background and the campaign setting as a whole, or do you just call your guy Bob Thunderfist the Dwarf Fighter and give him an axe and a lantern and fluency in Goblin?

2. Are you an Iconoclast or are you Easily lead? Do you revel in the obscure, the old, or the downright crap, and sit in a corner paging through a faded copy of Knights and Barbarians and Legerdemain while everybody else has a great time with D&D 4e? Or do you fall head over heels for every new release that has people talking, and immediately declare everything that went before a pale shadow of an imitation of the Brave New World - until, that is, the new flavour of the month comes along?

3. Are you a Monogamist or a Slut? Do you shudder at the very thought of playing something other than Shadowrun, or do you have an entire bookcase full of games, most of which you've barely read, let along played?

4. Are you a Fantasist or a Protestant? As a player, do you want to play kick-ass characters who can beat air-to-air missiles out of the sky with their fist and seduce a supermodel? Or do you prefer being a flawed anti-hero pissant who can only survive due to your wits and the good will of the Dice Gods? As a DM, do you want to facilitate the former or make things difficult for the latter?

I'm a CISP. Watch out if you're a Goer-Iconoclast-Monogamist-Protestant.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Bummed Out on Fantasy Lit

This post is not a rant - more a kind of pitiful whine. Bear with me.

I've been increasingly irritated by most fantasy literature of the last decades - especially that produced by younger authors, who seem to fall into two categories:

  • The desperate-to-be-hip type, who either try to turn everything into a commentary on modern day politics (usually from a leftish angle) or else introduce silly anachronisms like characters who say 'fuck' every other word;
  • The stuck-in-the-past conservative type, who are trapped in an endless repeating cycle of yetanotherfantasybildungsromanwhichseemstogoon foreverandoffersnothingnew.

I find it worrying that all of the fantasy writers who I consider myself to be a big fan of are either dead or getting old. Who is going to take up the mantle of people like Gene Wolfe, M. John Harrison, Michael Moorcock, Guy Gavriel Kay, or George R. R. Martin when they're gone? China Mieville is a talented writer, no doubt about it, but he can never seem to make his characters really sing. Other than him, though, who really is there? Naomi Novik? It's a sad state of affairs that the genre is in such a trough.

Anyway, I'm going to the big Kinokuniya in Shinjuku today to see what I can find in the way of interesting English fantasy books, and maybe it's just the thought of staring at the shelves and seeing nothing that catches my eye which is getting me down. If you have something you can recommend, let me know.

Friday 20 February 2009

Overview of Yoon-suin, the Mountains of the Moon, and the Mollusc Clanships of the Sundarban Mangroves

Sughd was founded five hundred years ago by mercenary ogre magi from the West; they were employed by a Raj of Syr Darya who neglected to pay them, so in return they destroyed him and his dynasty and took the city for themselves. In order to do so they made a blood pact with a great demon known as The Shikk, who gave them aid, but as payment The Shikk took the left half of every human being in the city, transforming them into vile nasnas. Since that day all the people of Syr Darya have had but half a face, half a body, one arm and one leg.

The Oligarchies are slaving cities which exploit the vast mineral wealth of the mountains and sell it downstream to Lamarakh and the Hundred Kingdoms. Spread among the Oligarchies are the many ruins of dwarven citadels which used to cluster the mountains. The dwarves are now almost entirely disappeared, though some remain in the highest peaks and glaciers. Their abandoned citadels are the haunts of the Drongukk, yak-headed ghosts who knaw on bones and copper for their sustenance.

Druk Yul is also called the Land of the Thunder Dragon. High in its glaciers, 8000 or more metres above sea level, are great Dzong carved from rock and ice; in them reside crystal dragons, the rulers of Druk Yul, and their storm giant servants. The cities, lower in altitude, are inhabited by duergar and humans; a strict caste system keeps humans at the bottom, little higher than dogs.

Lamarakh is a river kingdom; all of its settlements are boat-cities afloat on the God River, formed by lashing together barges, junks and rafts. Its people trade up and down the rivers, taking metals and minerals from the Mountains of the Moon downstream to the coast or to the Hundred Kingdoms; in return it ships slaves and spices to the Oligarchies. Its population is a mixture of humans and slugpeople; giant crayfish are employed to pull the boats when a city needs to move upstream.

The Hundred Kingdoms is the traditional name for the thirty-eight city states which exist between the God River and the Satpura Traps. Founded on rich alluvial soil and with year-round alternating sunshine and rainfall, their population is so dense that they have a constant surplus to send as slaves to Lamarakh and the Oligarchies. They are locked in continual warfare over resources and living space, and worship a massive bull-elephant god who devours the souls slain in battle and hungers satelessly.

The Clanships are twelve in number, so-called because all the members of each one are more-or-less clones, being bred from the same genetic stock. Slugpeople in the Sundarbans are hermaphroditic and only reproduce with other members of the same clan. The people of the clanships live in a mangrove swamp and build their cities on the roots of the trees - trees which can grow over a hundred metres tall.

Just southeast of the Clanships are The Topaz Islands and the Yellow City, a rocky archipelago of volcanic islands running along the coast, where a rich seam of topaz has broken through the surface of the sea. Dry of fresh water and lacking in any vegetation, the islands can only support thousands of sea birds, a single topaz dragon, and a nation of crabmen known as the Krytocracy who worship the dragon as their god-king. For his part, the capricious dragon spends his days sunning himself on the rocks or devouring one or two of his supposed worshipers. On the shore, however, where conditions are less harsh, lies the Yellow City, so called because of the colour it glows when the sunlight hits the rocks it is made from. The citizenry are a mixture of humans and crabmen.

The Dai-Aoi-Sango-Shou, or Great Blue Reef, is home to three squidpeople polities - Aoi-shio (the Blue Tide), Aka-shio (the Red Tide) and Murasaki-shio (the Purple Tide). The squid people are militant xenophobes who constantly raid the Topaz Islands and the Sundarbans for flesh; little is known of their society or culture, for all visitors are eaten.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

GINUINITI, or, Games which I Never Used to be Interested in, but am Now Interested in Thanks to the Internet

Rifts - When I was about 11 or 12 the only place I knew of to buy RPG stuff was the Virgin Megastore in Liverpool. (I'm showing my age there, probably: those were the days when not only were Virgin Megastores still around, they actually sold role playing games.) I used to spend a long time paging through various books on its shelves and imagining what it would be like to have more than three quid a week in pocket money. I liked the look of most games, but something about Rifts products always used to depress me. I'm not sure if it was the art or writing, but flicking through the books would fill me with this profound sense of apathy and alienation. Thanks to some posts at the RPG Corner, though, and I find I'm all turned around on the subject. Funny how sometimes you just need somebody who's "in the know" to explain what's good about something.

Tunnels & Trolls: This always struck me as the poorest of poor men's D&Ds: a straight up rip-off that didn't even try to hide the fact in a clever name. But again, thanks to somebody "in the know" I'm reconsidering that position. T&T looks cool.

Traveller and Twilight 2000: As kids a friend and I spent really a rather ridiculously long amount of time playing computer games based on these two, and failing utterly to find any enjoyment, or even sense, in them. The Traveller game in particular was like an exercise in refined torture; you could spend an AGE creating an entire gang of characters and customizing them in all sorts of interesting ways, but the instant the game begun you tended to either get attacked and wiped out by random bypassers, or accidentally walk into a lake and drown. The Twilight 2000 one meanwhile had such a horrible isometric interface that it was literally impossible to control anything your characters were doing; they would consequently run about in a manner reminiscent of people who've just been told a tsunami is coming, and be picked off one by one by mercilessly tough computer opponents. This ruined any interest I might have had in either as rpgs. However, discussion forums and in particular the Godzilla Gaming Podcast have made me reconsider. Computer games are never fair representations of the rpg they're based on. Just look at bloody Baldur's Gate.

Runequest: No.... hang on, thinking about it, I'm still not interested in Runequest.

BECMI Rogue Modron Class

Prime Requisite
: Intelligence and Constitution
Other Requirements: Intelligence of 9
Experience Bonus: +5% XP for Intelligence 13-15; +10% for Intelligence 16 or greater
Hit Dice: 1d8 per level up to 9th; +3 hp per level thereafter
Maximum Level: 9
Armour: Modron Armour only [see below], shields permitted
Weapons: Any
Special Abilities: Modron Toughness [see below], 30% resistance to illusions, charms, sleep and fear spells, and energy drains; 1 in 3 chance of detecting secret and hidden doors.
Experience Levels: As Elf
Saving Throws: Modrons use the Elf saving throw table

Modrons are clockwork contraptions native to the plane of Mechanus. Their head and body is composed of a cube-like box, to which are attached spindly arms and legs. Ordinarily they are utterly focused on law, stability, conformity and obedience, but very occasionally something goes awry in the highly ordered mind of one of their number. Such an unfortunate is immediately cast out from Mechanus and left to wander the universe. It then becomes known as a Rogue Modron.

Rogue Modrons are still, by comparison to other races, obsessed with rules. Indeed, it is difficult for most non-Modrons to notice a difference between a Rogue and an ordinary example of the race. If there is anything which separates Rogues, it is a certain curiosity about the universe. Once they have left Mechanus their minds seem to open up slightly to the possibility of other ways of being, about which they have hitherto had no interest.

Rogue Modrons do not believe in luck or emotion. They are robotically focused on whatever course of action they wish to pursue, and almost impossible to dissuade once their minds are made up. They try to rationalise everything they come across in terms of strict logical arguments, and cannot understand anything that cannot be explained in such terms. They appreciate magic, however, which they can pursue as a kind of science.

Special Rogue Modron Characteristics

Armour and Modron Toughness: Rogue Modrons have a natural Armour Class of 8 due to the hard outer casing of their box-like body. However, they cannot wear the ordinary armour which other races make. Instead they must either have specialist armour fitted, or discover a suit of (incredibly rare) Mechanus-made Modron-armour. Modron armour improves Armour Class to 6, but costs at least 200 gold pieces if it can be found at all.

Modron Minds: Modron minds are difficult to fool. Rogue Modrons have a 30% chance of resisting spells which rely on mind-alteration, such as sleep, charm person, or those which cause illusion. They are also excellent at cataloguing and analysing physical reality, and have a 1 in 3 chance of spotting secret or hidden doors. However, Modrons also suffer difficulties when reacting to sudden changes. When they are surprised, they remain that way for two rounds instead of the usual one. Modrons also find it hard to communicate with others, and any party containing a Rogue Modron must take a -1 penalty to rolls on the Monster Reaction Table.

Magic: Modrons progress in magical ability as does the elf class. They can choose spells from the following list:

Level 1

Detect Magic
Floating Disc
Hold Portal
Magic Missile
Read Languages
Read Magic

Level 2

Continual Light
Detect Invisible
Locate Object
Wizard Lock

Level 3

Create Air
Dispel Magic
Hold Person
Invisibility 10' Radius
Lightning Bolt
Protection from Normal Missiles
Water Breathing

Level 4

Dimension Door
Ice Storm/Wall of Ice
Polymorph Other
Wall of Fire
Wizard Eye

Level 5

Contact Outer Plane
Hold Monster
Magic Jar
Wall of Stone

Monday 16 February 2009

[Yoon-suin] Extract from Introduction

Here's an extract from the introduction to Yoon-suin, the campaign setting/mollusc-people sourcebook I'm putting together:

Yoon-suin and the Mountains of the Moon

From the mighty peaks of the Mountains of the Moon, stretching south to the ocean and west to the jungles of the Hundred Kingdoms, is the region the men of Xinjian call ‘Yoon-suin’: The Purple Lands, named after the spice Yoon which is its most famous produce. It is also sometimes called the Home of Gods, because it is said that its mountains are as big as a God’s shoulders, its rivers as wide as a God’s tongue, and its jungles as thick as one’s hair. But for most of its inhabitants, it is known simply as the Great Country.

Yoon-suin has long been cut off from the outside world. It is bound to the North by mountains in places ten thousand metres high; to the South by ocean; and to the East and West by near-impenetrable forest. Though it has long had trade with the men of Xinjian, it has otherwise developed in almost complete isolation. Its politics, languages and religions are its own, as are many of its peoples. But its wealth and the fame of its wonders also draws travellers, and the especially brave, talented or foolish occasionally reach it from other lands.

One such traveller was the philosopher and poet Laxmi Ghuptra Dahl, who, beginning in the twentieth year of the reign of the oligarch Suyong-bui, journeyed from Silaish Vo through Lamarakh all the way south to the Yellow City - and then later from Druk Yul to Syr Darya, where he met his death. He recorded detailed accounts of his journeys in a diary, which was brought back to Silaish Vo by slave traders long after his soul had passed into nothingness. In one of its final entries, he wrote:

I have travelled long in this world and lived in it for nigh fifty years, but I have never seen such beauty and horror as exists in the lands between Silaish Vo and the Yellow City. The Mountains of the Moon are as cold and as dry as hell, but when I first saw the sunlight dance on their snowy ramients I felt as if it was what heaven must look like. The jungles are thick with deathly moisture which lays against your skin like the hot breath of a wolf, but they are so green and lush that they can feed all of the world’s life a thousand times over. The God River is so wide and fast that to set foot in it is to be swept to oblivion and never again stand on solid earth, but to watch the fish leap in its waters at sunset gives one the same pleasure as watching ones own son at play in the village square. And though dread monsters throng its waters, the Great Blue Reef has such glory in its myriad colours that to look away from it for even a second is a great heartbreak. Beautiful or horrible; I know not which word best describes Yoon-suin. I am glad of it and afraid of it, and that is all I can write.

It is fitting that he wrote these words from a tower room in one of the minarets of Syr Darya (though there is some controversy amongst scholars with regard to dates). He had been poisoned somewhere in the Hundred Kingdoms, perhaps by an insect, and his last days were spent in considerable torment while gazing out over one of Yoon-suin’s most beautiful cities.

Sunday 15 February 2009

Top 10 Monsters

It's Sunday morning and I have a hangover, so a content-lite post. These are my favourite 10 D&D monsters, in no particular order:

1. Kenku. Invisible capricious bird men, who live within human society and occasionally offer help - which almost always leaves the benificiary worse off than they were before. What's not to like?

2. Duergar. Avaricious and xenophobic; the dark side of dwarfdom.

3. Yak folk. A race of mountain-dwelling elementalists who use trickery to enslave weak-willed humanoids. I love my psuedo-Tibetan fantasy - much better than pseudo-Japanese fare.

4. Neogi. Spider/Moray-eel crossbreeds, each with an umber hulk servant, who reproduce by being slowly poisoned until they inflate and explode to release a new brood of mindless young. Need I say more?

5. Gnolls. Always the greatest low-level chaotic-evil DM's henchmen sort of monster.

6. Mind-flayers. I'd argue that illithids are the iconic D&D monster, and in any case brain-eating monsters are always good. I can't stress that enough.

7. Dragons. Okay, they're in the game's title, but there is something unutterably great about dragons. The fact that giant reptilians have featured in the mythology of pretty much all human societies demonstrates that there is something within the concept that speaks to us on an innate, instinctual level. Racial memory, or something. Just don't mention Dragonlance.

8. Rilmani. There's something about militant neutrality that I really like. It should be an oxymoron, and yet...

9. Aboleths. Ancient, baleful horrors who possess knowledge of the universe from eons before mankind even rose from the ocean.

10. Humans. Okay, a bit of a cheat, this one, but I use humans as enemies quite a lot more than other DMs seem to. And when you consider the sort of things humans can do to their enemies, it makes you wonder why you even need to bother with illithids.

The list would probably change if you asked me next week, as these things always do. But it'll do for this morning.

Saturday 14 February 2009

BECMI Bariaur Class

Prime Requisite: Strength
Other Requirements: Constitution of 9
Experience Bonus: +5% XP for Strength 13-15; +10% for Strength 16 or greater
Hit Dice: 1d8 per level up to 9th; +4 hp per level thereafter
Maximum Level: 16
Armour: Any, shields permitted
Weapons: Any
Special Abilities: Fighter Maneuvers; Fighter Combat Options; Charge Attack (see below)
Experience Levels: As Magic User
Saving Throws: Bariaur use the Fighter saving throw table

Bariaur are a hybrid of man and animal; their torso and arms are those of a human but the body is that of a large goat. The head is a mixture - the face human but horned like a ram in males and like a nanny goat in females.

Bariaur are generally lighthearted and are often considered shallow; they care for nothing much besides travel, drink, sex, and looking good. Incorrigible peacocks, their favourite pastime is decorating their horns, fur and clothing with elaborate, colourful schemes.

Bariaur are very strong fighters, but not intellectually oriented. They have no talent for magic. They have surprising dexterity for their ungainly-looking appearance, but still face difficulties in enclosed environments like dungeons.

Special Bariaur Characteristics:

Movement: Bariaur move much more quickly than members of other races. Their movement rate is 180' (60').

Charge Attack: A Bariaur can forgo the chance to make an ordinary attack and instead declare a charge. This allows him to move up to his running speed and make an attack with his horns. The charge attack does 1d8 damage, plus Strength bonus. However, on a successful hit the Bariaur must also make a saving throw vs. death ray/poison or lose 1d4 hit points himself.

Climbing: Bariaur are agile for their size, but climbing trees and sheer walls is generally impossible for them unless they have assistance of some kind.

Outdoor and Indoor Activities: Bariaur prefer the outdoors and gain a +1 bonus to their attack rolls under an open sky; conversely, they suffer a -1 penalty to their attack rolls indoors.

Friday 13 February 2009

Sokushinbutsu: The Self Mummified

A sokushinbutsu is a monk or cleric who has undergone the radical process of self-mummification and thereby gained immortality - sometimes, at the cost of his sanity.

The self-mummification procedure takes three years, three months and three days. During this time the holy man fasts and undergoes rigorous exercise to completely purge his body of fat. During the final 333 days of the process he begins to consume small doses of poison, usually arsenic. Finally, 33 days before the end, with the help of other members of his order he shuts himself away in a brick compartment just large enough to allow him to sit in the lotus position. He then waits to starve. Once the 33 days have passed his brothers remove his body from the compartment and position it in a place of veneration. The arsenic in his bloodstream preserves the body from beetles and maggots; his brothers also use various spices and incantations to stave off decay.

After three dozen years have passed, the holy man's soul returns from wherever it dwelt in the intervening period, and inhabits the mummified body it left behind. Sometimes the soul is benevolent and continues to live harmoniously with its brotherly order. Sometimes, due perhaps to the ordeal of the three-year procedure, or because of what happened after, the soul is crazed and incoherent, and requires constant care from its brothers. At others, however, the soul has become twisted and malevolent, with a hatred for all living things. These last often bring with them dark knowledge from the afterlife, and use it to cause pain, sorrow and mischief.

Sokushinbutsu usually wear the vestments of their order, and appear withered and skeletal. They are nearly always eyeless, but nevertheless percieve reality perfectly.

Lawful sokushinbutsu are meditative and serene. They do not generally communicate and spend much of their time in silent contemplation, though sometimes they can be persuaded to perform healing spells or remove curses. They are only ever found at monasteries or shrines in the company of other members of their order, who care for them meticulously. Neutral sokushinbutsu are insane and either catatonic or imbecilic, though occasionally insights about their god, or the afterlife, can be gleaned from their ramblings. Chaotic sokushinbutsu are malevolent and cruel; they usually kill the other members of their order or flee their company, and can most often be found lurking in ruins, caves or graveyards. They are sometimes accompanied by ghouls, who they exercise a strange power over, or, rarely, weak-willed evil humans who venerate them.


Armour Class: 6
Hit Dice: 6+4
Move: 120'
Attacks: 2 fists
Damage: 1-4/1-4
No. Appearing: 1
Save As: C10
Morale: 9
Treasure Type: Nil
Alignment: Lawful, Neutral or Chaotic

Sokushinbutsu may cast spells as a level 8 cleric. They can only be harmed by magical or silver weapons.

[Note: Sokushinbutsu are a genuine phenomenon, and it is believed that hundreds of Japanese monks, mostly in Yamagata prefecture, attempted self-mummification. Only around 20 are thought to currently be in existence. I was going to post a picture of one in this entry, but it felt oddly disrespectful and I changed my mind. Using the concept as inspiration for a D&D monster is one thing, but I thought it would be in rather bad taste to put up a photo of a specific individual. You can find pictures of them on google image search if you're so inclined.]

Practice Makes Perfect

I'm one of those people who quite likes playing mediocre characters. Making the best of a bad lot is fun, especially if there's a humourous angle. But I also tend towards the view that there is something virtuous in overcoming the trials and difficulties of life as a bad character.

RPGers don't really talk about practice - not these days, anyway. I believe Gary Gygax may have mentioned it somewhere. But anything worth spending time doing, whether learning the saxophone, playing rugby or practicing keyhole surgery, requires it. Why should role playing be any different? And in the same way that playing chopsticks over and over again on the piano won't turn you into Rachmaninoff, surely playing uber-munchkin characters won't help you get very much better at your game of choice, either.

This is the problem with min-maxing and why it was always considered anathema, I think. Bring on the mediocre characters and the protestant work ethic for role playing!

Thursday 12 February 2009

You Remind Me of the Babe... What Babe? The Babe with the Power

So the other night it came up in conversation that my wife had never seen Labyrinth. Tch, those crazy Japanese, eh? We rented it from the local Tsutaya (google it) forthwith, and watched it over beer and sushi.

The last time I'd seen Labyrinth, I must have been about 10 or 11 years old, so my memories were hazy, like when you try to recall the details of a dream you once had. I kept saying, "Oh yeah...." at inopportune moments. I'd even forgotten Jennifer Connelly was in it, for instance. The film has definitely aged in the 16 or so years since I last watched it, but it is still highly entertaining and deliciously eerie.

In particular, I love the fairy-tale skew to the plot, characters and atmosphere, and there are a couple of things I want to take from it and incorporate into a game (probably Changeling: The Dreaming or an especially fairy-tale-esque Basic D&D campaign:

1. Non-humans are literal.

This is a trope in Brothers Grimm tales too: the way mythical beings take what people say utterly seriously. Thus even though the Jennifer Connelly character does not really mean that she wants the goblin king to take her baby half-brother away from her, the fact that she says she wants it is enough for the goblins. "What's said is said," as David Bowie points out when he comes to collect. This message - that once something is spoken, even if you don't really mean it, it cannot be undone - is quite profound as a caution to children, but it's also a great fantasy trope in itself, with the potential for causing lots of problems.

2. There can be deadly danger in innocent play.

When Jennifer Connelly encounters the Fire Gang in the forest, they seem playful and ready to incorporate her into the game. But it turns out that her participation would involve them removing her head from her body - and they won't take 'no' for an answer. Suddenly the entire episode turns very sinister. It's like certain scenes in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, where "let's play" is an invitation to either death or entrapment, or at the very least a perhaps permanent distraction from the mission at hand. Again, a profound about having to leave childhood and childish things behind, but also a great way to cause problems for a band of adventurers.

3. M. C. Escher was brilliant.

When I was a kid I was a huge fan of Escher - I had lots of books of his art, and often tried to emulate his weirder pieces. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that he was as much an influence on my liking for the fantastic as Tolkien was. What I hadn't remembered at all was how much Labyrinth was directly influenced by him also: from the design of the Labyrinth to the faded delicate vistas to the layout of the goblin king's castle, Escher's mark is everywhere. I definitely think that as well as monstrous Things That Should Not Be, unlikely Buildings That Should Not Be should also make more appearances in fantasy gaming.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Tolkien, with a Twist

I like to imagine what would happen if Tolkien's Middle Earth and the history of D&D had whelped a hybrid mutant campaign setting. What would such a setting be like?

Firstly, elves wouldn't have been the movers and shakers over the milennia, as they were in Middle Earth. Far too pedestrian. I'd like to remove elves and replace them with the most ancient of D&D creatures: Mind flayers. It was the Illithids who were created first by Eru, the Illithids who went to Valinor, and a branch of the Illithids who rebelled against the Valar to wage eternal war for the Silmarils.

Second, there are no orcs. Orcs aren't D&D enough, and anyway, orcs are a corrupted version of elves, who don't exist in my Mutant Middle Earth setting. No, the dominant evil humanoid race is now the gnoll, created long ago by Melkor by fusing humans and hyenas.

Third, forget ents. Deep in the fastness of Fangorn forest there is now a great kingdom of myconids, hidden from the rest of the world and inaccessible to all but the bravest explorers.

In place of the Shire, there is a small mongrelman commune.

Numenor was formed by human slaves of the Illithids who rebelled and rose to great power before being stricken down by the gods for their impudence.

The haradrim are a decadent empire of gith, thri-kreen and half-giants.

Dwarves, of course, are Derro.

And Sauron is the most ancient and powerful of the yuan-ti, now attained demigodhood, while Mordor is the world's thickest and most fetid jungle. He has nine rakshasa servants, who ride on black dragons, and thousands of spawning pits for his yuan-ti minions.

Beneath the Misty Mountains lies a great labyrinthine dungeon scraped into the very roots of the mountains: the Temple of Elemental Evil...

Monday 9 February 2009

The Fight Fantasy Cover Monster Bestiary (IV)

An occasional series which stats-out and re-imagines the creatures found on Fighting Fantasy book covers.

Number 4 - The Tentacled Thing

In the marsh lands of Hlatepo the people speak of a Tentacled Thing, which lurks in the murky waters, waiting for prey. Those who claim to have seen it speak of a great giant-sized beast with a many-limbed body and huge clacking pincers which tear through flesh.

Legend has it that the creature has a third eye in its forehead through which it can percieve the future. This allows it to attack, kill, and retreat with eerie precision and timing.

The Tentacled Thing

Armour Class: 0
Hit Dice: 15***
Move: 120' (swim)
Attacks: *Special
Damage: *Special
No. Appearing: 1
Save as: F20
Morale: 9
Treasure Type: K
Intelligence: 2-4
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 5,000

*The Tentacled Thing does not have a fixed number of attacks per round. It can always bite for 3d6 damage and claw with its pincers for 2d6 damage each, but it also has 2d6 additional tentacle attacks per round which cause 1d6 hit points of damage each. If both pincers and the bite attack hit, the Tentacled Thing can swallow its prey.

The Tentacled Thing is never surprised, and its opponents are surprised on a roll of 1-5, rather than the usual 1-2.

Sunday 8 February 2009

Mollusc World: To BECM or not to BECM?

As I think I might have said before, for sentimental reasons 2nd edition AD&D will always be my favourite version of D&D, but I'd always make the case that the best is BECMI. ('Favourite' and 'best' don't always have to be the same thing, I'm sure you'd agree. My favourite TV series, for example, is Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is hardly the best ever made.) Why BECMI? Because it perfectly melds the make-it-up-yourself aspect of OD&D with a more comprehensive and sensible framework of rules - moreover a set of rules which work as one volume and don't become overly complicated or require you to memorise very much. No edition of (A)D&D ever managed anything like that.

So I think on the face of it I'd like to make my Mollusc World setting a BECMI/RC one. But this could cause a problem.

Viz: just how popular is BECMI these days? The so-called 'legacy gaming' trend tends to focus more on OD&D and 1st edition AD&D than anything else. As far as I can tell BECMI comes a distant third, only just in front of 2nd edition (the big loser in the 'old school renaissance'). Labyrinth Lord is partly to blame for this, in that it scratches the itch that Classic D&D used to. My suspicion is that the people who would have been using the Rules Cyclopedia to run games are now mostly relying on LL. (No bad thing in itself, but I've come to the decision that for aesthetic reasons if nothing else BECMI beats LL hands down.) And there is still, I think, an entirely misplaced prejudice and dislike of race-as-class at large in the D&D playing community.

Just how much interest there would be in Classic D&D products these days is questionable.

Friday 6 February 2009

Unfinished Map of Mollusc-People States

Scale: 20 miles to a hex


Light Blue - Shallow sea or ocean, or freshwater body
Purple - Coral reef and atolls
Brick-brown - Mangrove mixed with tidal flats
Yellow - Sandy beach
Light Green - Coastal forest
Dark Green - Swamp and mixed tropical forest

Tools of the Trade

The life of a DM is never easy. Work, work, work. Here are some free software tools which make my game-planning run much more smoothly.

1. This by far gets the most mileage - whether for creating maps or for random scribbling. For some reason when people recommend free art programmes on rpg forums they usually talk about GIMP, which I find fiddly and hard to use. has a much shallower learning curve, does everything you want an art program to do, and is what the godawful Microsoft Paint always should have been.

2. Winshot, a free and incredibly easy-to-use screen capture device with which I take snapshots of bits and pieces of art to create flavour handouts and the like, and also create maps with via Google Earth.

3. Sakura editor, the absolute best text editor EVER. Unfortunately I believe that there isn't an English version, but if you download the program (click on the 'sourceforge project home' link) you should be able to get to an English download page. The interface is Japanese but it still writes English text and the keyboard shortcuts are all the same.

4. Google Earth. Perfect for searching for sections of the real world to turn into maps. Used to be one of my main methods of map creation. Here's an example:

5. Foxit Reader. I always hated Adobe Acrobat - it's slow, unwieldy, and dull - so Foxit takes care of all my pdf reading needs. It's incredibly fast and light in comparison to Adobe, with a much friendlier user interface.

Thursday 5 February 2009

Olazabal Subsector

Part of the Traveller sector I'm developing to run with the regular PBeM group. This is the Olazabal subsector, which is one of the areas of space colonized by Basques from old earth. It even has a world called Gernika, named after the famous town whose destruction was immortalized by Picasso. (Other parts of the sector were settled by Koreans and Japanese.) All UWPs and so on were entirely randomly generated, hence the sometimes strange results.


And some notes on the background and a couple of the worlds:

Olazabal subsector

The Olazabal subsector is one of eight subsectors entirely owned by the Euskal Herria - an interstellar confederacy founded by Basque colonists. The Olazabal subsector is considered something of a backwater, but it is one of the longest settled areas of Euskal Herria space and thus has strong emotional ties for most Basques. Its mapping and planetary surveyance was carried out by three explorers - Olazabal, Urzaiz and Arzalluz - who are considered among the greatest of all Basque spacefarers, though they all died some 8,000 years ago.

The Euskal Herria takes a lassez-faire approach to planetary rule, and directly governs only three worlds in all of the twelve subsectors where it has a presence. All the worlds in the Olazabal subsector have complete autonomy and are required only to submit 0.5% of their Gross Domestic Product in taxes to the central authority. However, the Herria brooks no attempt at complete secession and has shown itself willing to attack and occupy worlds which attempt to declare complete independence.

Planet Details


An earth-sized world with an atmosphere of argon and an average temperature well over boiling. It is named after the first Basque in space, who entered earth orbit in 2008. The large population live in subterranean tunnel systems with life support provided by technicians from the Euskara Herria. This is more than worth their while: Eyharts is one of the biggest producers of precious metals in the sector, though its distance from regular communication and trade routes means that freight is infrequent. There are three governments on the planet - one technocracy (the major polity), a military junta, and a slave-owning oligarchy. All three are hostile to one another, though open warfare is infrequent. Eyharts' distance from other systems and the unusual situation in which its inhabitants live has caused eccentric cultural developments: the inhabitants use sex to seal trade agreements and reproduce with cloning.


Santurtzi is the food-producing hub of the subsector, and the dominant power is a Soviet-style Communist bureaucracy where the population inhabit communal farms. Its huge port, from which many of the surrounding systems are fed, houses the main Euskal Herria consulate in its region of space. Two minor regions of the planet have independence from the Santurtzi state - one is a tiny representative democracy, the other a throwback to hereditary kingship. Trade on Santurtzi is governed by a complex set of rules based on citizens' social class (actual or percieved).


Irun declared independence from the Euskal Herria twenty years ago; it has since been invaded by the main fleet in the subsector and a naval base set up, amid rumours of massacre and repression. All travel to the system is forbidden and its UWP is based on old and unconfirmable data.


Uzcudun is a water world, its entire surface one unbroken ocean. Its handful of inhabitants live in raft-like dwellings and have a nomadic existence sailing along age-old lines of migration, though their advanced technology allows them to remain in constant communication. One of their notable traditions is the deliberate blinding of their family elders, in an elaborate ritualistic ceremony. Despite its tiny population Uzcudun has one of the largest space ports in the subsector (built, at considerable expense, on a platform anchored to the ocean floor) and a Euskal Herria consulate; it is a tourist hub for the elite of the entire Euskal sector.


A poor, rocky world with a climate similar to earth's arctic circle and a small, rabidly xenophobic population living in nomadic clan groups. Cabbarus is also a notable hideout for pirates, smugglers and outcasts, with a Traveller's Aid Society well known to be corrupted beyond all usefulness and a middle-sized but delapidated space port. Over the centuries the Euskal Herria has attempted on several occasions to occupy the planet and install a 'responsible government', but the cost of doing so - in men and resources - has always proved prohibitive, especially given Cabbarus' utter poverty.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Quests in the Library of Babel

Why step into the Library of Babel?
  • To find the volume containing the letters 'MCVMCVMCVMCV' repeated without pause, variation or break for its entire 410 pages. This is rumoured to be the book which led to the founding of the Guild of the Meaning in Dreams, when three librarians spent a week arguing over its meaning or lack of such, and finally agreed to form a debating society. The volume has now been lost, and there are those - antique book dealers, historians, kings and mages - who would pay fortunes to have it.
  • To discover a book containing the line, anywhere in its midst, Oh time thy pyramids. This sentence was found a century ago on the second-to-last page of a book filled with otherwise meaningless text; it led Guinevere Brown, one of the most well known researcher-explorers, to her conclusion that all such sentence fragments in the library could eventually be reconfigured to trasmit profound meaning. There are many volumes containing this line on the shelves of the library, but as they are lost in a sea of 251312000 books, finding even one is a task worthy of a god.
  • To find and bring back the sage Jessop Wayne, who ventured into the library some thirty years ago and is thought lost. He is the only man who knows certain secrets of his Order, and his colleagues must find him or lose that knowledge forever.
  • To find, and kill, the members of the Cult of Senseless Cacophanies, who are systematically working their way through the library, destroying all the books which contain garbled text. This they do in an attempt to separate sense from nonsense and enforce some kind of order. Many believe that this vandalism is destroying forever the possibility of discovering meaning in chaos.
  • To search for the rumoured God of the library, who it is said can be found at its very bottom, very top, and very centre, and who knows every volume intimately.
  • To bring back a book holding the words to a Wish spell.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Borgesian Bibliophiliac Megadungeon

In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite ...

- From The Library of Babel

All this talk about megadungeons has me thinking about Borges.

Long term readers of this blog will know that I'm a bit of a Borges nut. The man was one of the very few writers who I would describe as a genius, and one of even fewer I would call visionary. His ideas are like drugs for anyone with an imagination.

In May last year, when Monsters & Manuals was knee-high to a grasshopper, I had an idea for a campaign based on Borges' Library of Babel. You can read the original post in its entirety here, but to sum up:

The Library of Babel is a Universe of books. In it are exactly 251312000 volumes. Each book contains exactly 410 pages, and each page contains exactly 40 lines of 80 characters. No book is the same - their contents are made up of random letters, spaces and punctuation marks.

Now, most of the volumes are of course gibberish - just garbled text. However, it is also the case that the library contains some books of coherent text, by virtue of the fact that it contains every conceivable combination of letters, characters and spaces. Indeed, it contains not only every novel ever written, but some novels that have not yet been written; it also contains all variations on those novels - so that not only is a complete copy of, say, The Catcher in the Rye hidden somewhere in the middle of one of its volumes, but there is also somewhere a Catcher in the Rye with one different letter somewhere in the text, one with two different letters, one with three... And of course another one with one other different letter somewhere in the text, and one with two other different letters... And the same for every novel ever written. Every non-fiction book too, of course. And, more interestingly for our purposes - every spellbook.

You can probably see where I'm going with that.

The point of the Library of Babel, however, is that there is no catalogue. The books not only contain random text; they are also organized randomly. Whole sects of people live in the library, trying to make sense of it and quantify it, but the task is too great. They disagree not only on the system they should use, but also on the very philosophies underpinning the system; some go so far as to believe that even the random volumes - which make up the overwhelming majority of the Library's books - contain hidden meanings which, once deciphered, will unlock the key to a new reality.

This is perfect for a Planescape campaign, in which the characters are sent to recover a single mighty spell book from the Library. How do they find it amidst the effectively almost infinite shelves? How do they make sure the copy they have is perfectly correct, and not one of the multitude of volumes which contain one or two crucial mistaken characters somewhere in their midst? How do they deal with the mysterious denizens of the Library's honeycomb hallways and archives: the different sects and cults and philosophers, and the monsters who prey on them? How do they find their way around its labyrinthine shelves? What arguments occur between the Bleaker who revels in the apparent meaninglessness of the place, the Godsman who believes it will reveal the path to Godhood, and the Sensate who wants to read every one of its volumes?

What a good idea this is for a megadungeon, even if I do say so myself. I might even use it to meet Amityville Mike's challenge.

The problem with the Library of Babel as a megadungeon is that its appearance and layout is uniform. It is more like a maze than a dungeon because everything in it is more or less exactly the same. The only things that distinguish one area from another are the inhabitants and the contents of the books - which are rendered almost indistinguishable all the same by their incomprehensibility. And without landmarks, finding a way around could become a chore beyond all reckoning.

How best to get around this problem is something to think about.

Starlight Golem

It's been a while since I've posted a monster, hasn't it? Here's a simple little companion piece to a creature I statted up a while back: the Moon Golem.

Starlight Golem

An ethereal, almost invisible gossamer-like being of indefinable, vaguely humanoid shape, a Starlight Golem is crafted on nights when the moon is new and the firmament is the only illumination. The skill and power necessary to create one is far beyond the limit of all but the most mighty of magic users.

Starlight Golems are mindless creatures who exist only to kill. They can be given only simple orders such as to guard, attack, or stop.

Intelligence: Non
Alignment: Neutral
AC: -4
Movement: 6, or Fly 12 (E)
HD: 12 (60 hp)
THAC0: 8
No. of Attacks: 2
Damage/Attack: 3d8/3d8
Special Attacks: A Starlight Golem can forgo its two ordinary attacks and attempt to envelop an opponent. This attack treats all targets as AC 10 (though dexterity bonuses apply) and causes 2d10 damage.
Special Defenses: A Starlight Golem can be hit only by silver weapons, or weapons enchanted to +2 or more. They take half damage from cold attacks.
Size: Large (8-10')
Morale: Fearless (20)
Other: Starlight Golems are non-corporeal, and can pass through doors and walls without impediment. In battle they always attack the nearest target, or attack randomly if targets are equidistant. They are almost invisible, and always surprise their opponents. When it is a new moon they are at their strongest, and on such nights they gain 2 HD and increase their movement to 12 (Fly 18 [D]).

Monday 2 February 2009

My Boredom Has Outshone The Sun

There's been too much sweetness and light in this blog recently, hasn't there? So, Inspired by this thread: a list of tropes/cliches that I'd be happy to never see in a game, novel, or film, again, ever. Ever.

1. It is evil, so it talks in a deep, husky, sinister darth vader type voice. Exemplified by the Lord of the Nazgul in Peter Jackson's Rings films. Now become such a cliche that it is no longer even remotely sinister or frightening, but just sounds like a guy with a cold wheezing into some kind of voice synthesizer.

2. It is an alien race, and yet it looks like a human but with an animal head. Just fuck off if the best you can come up with for an alien species is a bloke with a lion/wolf/eagle's head. Especially if the race has the percieved characteristics of that animal species - like pride and laziness for a lion. Bonus points if your animal-head race has a name that can be identified with the creature, like 'Aslan'.

3. She is a woman in a man's world, and is gorgeous and can kick ass with the best of them, but she has an attitude because nobody gives her any respect, and eventually she falls in love with the hero. There is so much that annoys me about this particular trope that I can't put it into words. When will speculative fiction game writers, novelists etc. be able to write convincing female characters? Oh, wait, Le Guin, Wolfe, Martin and a whole load of others have been able to. So why can't you?

4. They are characters, and this is a fantasy setting, and yet it seems like a thinly veiled mouthpiece for broadcasting the stale and trite political views of the author/designer/player. China Mieville and the people who made Blue Rose are shining examples. Also, see staunch atheist players who always create characters who turn out to be..... atheists! Wiccan players who always create characters who turn out to be..... against the established religious order! And so on.

5. They are an analog of white Europe during the Crusading era/Age of Sail, and they are evil and domineering and oppressive. Because the idea that white Europeans did some bad stuff in the past is, like, so controversial and edgy, isn't it?

Tch. And bah.

Sunday 1 February 2009

If I could be for only an hour, if I could be for an hour every day....

When people say that fantasy, science fiction, horror and so on are just escapism, I always inwardly roll my eyes, even though I have to recognise that the description is fundamentally sound. What annoys me is that it is also fundamentally sound for every genre of fiction. You're telling me The Secret History, White Teeth, Bleak House, Pride & Prejudice and Midnight's Children aren't about escape from real life? Saying that 'fantasy is just escapism' is simply another of the many ways in which the Literati consign the genre to the Untouchable Shelf in the book shop where the Not Real Literature books go.

The problem, you see, is the word just. 'Fantasy is about escapism' is a proposition I have no difficulty with. 'Fantasy is just escapism' is dismissive and wrong, not only because the genre is about so much more than that, but also because it implies that there's something bad about escapism - like it's an insignificant or unworthy goal. As we have seen, such an implication is idiotic because if it applies to fantasy it equally applies to 'literary fiction' or whatever label you want to give the Proper Novels - but it is also idiotic because escapism is at core a good thing.

Let me tell you about escapism. I spent much of last year in a kind of limbo between finishing a Master's degree and starting my Ph.D, mainly because of problems with the funding body who pay me for my research. During that time-between-times I was working as a translator and editor cum Head of English at a small company in Yokohama, and it was The Dullest and Most Soul Destroying Job in the world. I spent most of my time sitting at a desk in my office painstakingly translating patents and employee contracts that didn't have a modicum of anything approaching interesting content; getting up to grab another cup of coffee every hour or so from the lobby; idly flirting with the receptionists while drinking said coffee; staring out of the window; and listening to the clock tick on the wall. My boss didn't allow us to listen to music and I worked 10, 11 or 12 hour shifts at a time. I have never known longer days.

I think four things kept me sane during that period. One was the financial renumeration, which wasn't at all bad. Second was the fact that I knew I would be leaving in October. Third was going drinking after work. And fourth was the escapism offered by the fact that I was alone in an office and could post in various PBeM games during the day without anybody knowing.

The fourth thing was perhaps the most important. I would sit in my silent, grey, deathly boring office while life crept by outside at glacial pace, and I wouldn't mind the dullness, because for a few minutes every hour I was creating an imaginary world with good friends: slaying dragons, assassinating politicians, exploring ocean depths or just shooting the breeze about what we were going to do next. That's escapism for you. It ain't a bad thing.